Author On the Bookcase: Jay Varner, author of Nothing Left To Burn

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I'm so excited to welcome Jay Varner, author of Nothing Left to Burn, to On the Bookcase! Jay's memoir eloquently tells the story of a son’s relationship with his father, the fire chief and a local hero, and his grandfather, a serial arsonist. Jay returns home after college and lands a job at the local newspaper writing the police and fire beat. Three men of the same family share a passion or obession with fire. In digging into the past, Jay's story reveals layers of family secrets, lies, and half-truths about fire-fighting and arson. It is only when he finally has the truth in hand that he comes to an understanding of the forces that drove his father, and of the fires that for all his efforts his father could never extinguish.

In this post, Jay shares his high school struggles to get a girl and be accepted. These struggles lead to an enlightment of Jay's ultimate goal to "write a book."

In ninth grade, I was bused an hour away to a high school that mixed camouflaged country boys like my friends and I with Gap-decked city kids. My freshman class had 250 students, the most visible of which came from a wealthy neighborhood of lawyers and doctors. Oceans of them swarmed the halls between classes, talking about things like beer, pot, fights, automobiles, and sex. I watched spaghetti westerns, collected baseball cards, played video games, and stayed home Friday nights to read about the Civil War. I was an anonymous weirdo in a school, like most, defined by social hierarchy. Unless I wanted to end up like Grover Hutchins, the curly-haired senior who sat by himself at lunch and read fantasy dragon novels, I had to distinguish myself.

Nothing would better redefine my identity than a girlfriend. The logic behind my quixotic conquest was hazy. In middle school, as boys with peach-fuzz mustaches and Skoal-breath snagged the prettiest girls, I marveled at the Sport Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and endured taunts of “Gay Jay” from mullet-headed boys. I didn’t chalk off the calendar days until the arrival of deer hunting season or ride four-wheelers and, thus, failed to meet the accepted definition of a real man. But, it seemed real men always had a woman by their side. Looking back, I think I needed to prove to myself that I could find a girlfriend—perhaps it really was the chase that gave me the greatest thrill. Beyond announcing that I had finally captured this long sought-after fantasy girl, I would have had no idea what came next.

You lived and died by lunch in high school. If you spent a month careening like a pinball from girl to girl in the hopes of receiving basic eye contact only to meet constant failure, you might as well consider seppuku. It’s hard to tell how much of what came next could be chalked up to adolescent angst and how much of it really was a black-eyed dog scratching at the door. I was depressed—or, rather, immersed myself in the things I imaged a depressed person would do, such as wearing black and reading the darkest and most cynical pieces of the canon. In a matter of weeks I tore through The Bell Jar, Catch-22, and The Catcher In the Rye. When I was in a bookstore, I saw something called Prozac Nation—how could I resist? This was my nation and the author, Elizabeth Wurtzel, became my first true, painful celebrity crush. I needed my beloved Elizabeth, just like the many girls at school, to finally notice me.

Perhaps this is why, not long after that my bacchanalia of depressive literature, I wrote a story for English class called “The Box.” It was an allegorical mish-mash between Matheson’s “Button, Button” and Stockton’s “The Lady and the Tiger”—someone finds a mysterious box and what’s inside answers questions and fills desires. “But what, dear reader, is inside the box?” Even though the story amounted to petty theft, my classmates loved all of it, especially that final line. I thought they would raise me onto their shoulders and carry me through the halls amidst a blizzard of confetti, celebrating a literary genius that had lay dormant for years. The slightest hint of acclaim was like heroin—I needed more fast.

The great scam of my adolescence started the following Sunday night, when I sat on the La-Z-Boy and tried to write a follow-up. I thumbed through the radio dial and found something called Dr. Demento, a syndicated radio show dedicated to novelty songs in the vein of Weird Al or Stan Freeberg. In the best of cases, they satirized society; in the worst, they featured harmonized burps. After a few minutes, I hit the record button on the tape deck. The first song I remember was called “God Told Me to Rob the 7-11” by Dick Price. Throughout that next day at school, the bouncy piano chords stuck in my head and when I stormed home that night, I rewound the tape and typed up the lyrics because they made me laugh. But—and to me, this was a vital distinction—I didn’t put my name underneath the title. When I handed out copies to my busmates the next morning, they laughed just as I had intended. But after they complimented me for writing the poem, I never exactly said that I didn’t write the words. And this is how it went, more or less, for the next two years. I was a regular Thomas Paine, if rather than extolling the virtues of freedom Paine had instead plagiarized novelty songs for his pamphlets and handed them out to his classmates in the hopes of becoming popular enough to net a girlfriend. Despite my continued defeats on the romantic front, it somehow seemed logical that a girl would fall in love with some lanky zit-faced kid who wore silk-screened sweatshirts and wrote funny poems. They did not and, when the radio station took Dr. Demento off the air, I felt the pressure of my audience—I needed to give them something. There would be no more jokes, I announced. I was going in a new direction and, for the first time, I put my name on the verses.

I should be in the gray clay
Of the frozen terrain.
Instead I keep breathing,
And things keep falling like the rain.

I turned that poem in to my senior-year English teacher, who passed it along to the office. As I made my case to the concerned principal, I told him it was only a poem, that plenty of poets expressed dark emotion in poetry.

“Take Sylvia Plath,” I said. “Her poems are loaded with stuff like this.”

The principal folded his hands, cocked his head. “True, but I remember it not ending well for her. Maybe you should write something else?”

Nothing Left to BurnSo I did. First, there was my version of The Onion which satirized issues common to my school like heroin addiction with such knee-slapping hilarity that the principal threatened to sue if I used the school’s name again. When the late-90s rash of school shootings hit, I wrote a skit about competing school shooters who had all picked the same day for their rampage—eventually, they worked out a passable time-table. My English teacher sent that one over to the principal, who again saw no humor.

“It’s satire,” I said. “And great satire should push the envelope?”

“True, but this is a little scary,” he said. He leaned back in his chair. “You thinking about college?”

I wasn’t. Some of the parents where I grew up didn’t exactly swing for the fences when it came to dreaming about their kids’ futures. Employed, out of jail, and not dead from a bar fight or car accident was usually good enough. It seemed that so long as I was happy, my family would be proud. Problem was, I had no idea just what would make me happy. I had toyed with a few career options—farmer, movie director, police officer, mercenary, helicopter pilot, sniper—but, after losing interest in them all, I more or less assumed that after high school I’d put my name in at the local factories, a perfectly respectable life spent in the echoes of clanging hammers and cracking timber.

“You could major in creative writing,” the principal said. “You’d do pretty well with something like that.”

There was the seed. There was the thing that would define me more than any girlfriend. When we were instructed to pick a quote to include under our photos in the high school yearbook, most people picked something trivial to sum up their high school experience—quips from Meet Joe Black or lyrics to a Matchbox Twenty song. I wanted mine to carry some metaphysical weight so I chose a line by Phillip Larkin—or, as it was erroneously attributed, Phillip Carkin.

I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any—after all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think?

In my picture, I wore a drab gray shirt and a thin red tie that was not in style in 1999 nor anytime since. The severity on my face matched one of those stiff men in Civil War Daguerreotypes who tucked his hand into his jacket and looked bloated by indigestion.

Underneath Larkin’s quote was my life’s ambition. Many classmates wrote something like “To love Gina forever” or “Keep my truck running real good.”

Mine: “To someday write a book.”

Jay, thanks so much for revealing your trials and tribulations of high school. I'm so glad these issues finally led you to be a writer instead of "farmer, movie director, police officer, mercenary, helicopter pilot, sniper." Nothing Left to Burn has excellent discussion points for reading groups -- family dynamics, coming-of-age, faith.

Praise for Nothing Left to Burn
“Varner traces a scorched circle of memory in this affecting memoir, looking to fire to both destroy and purify the past.”
--Publisher’s Weekly

"At its core, the book is about the way we spend half our lives trying to understand the people who brought us into this world ..."
--Time Out Chicago

Jay Varner is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he earned his MFA in creative nonfiction. He currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is his first book.

Find out more about Jay.

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